Answer: touring with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets (named after the Pink Floyd album)
Dom Beken is a keyboard and studio whiz who has collaborated with bands and musicians spanning an impressively wide variety of genres. He was a member of The Orb (and later the Transit Kings, and High Frequency Bandwidth) with Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty of The KLF. There are those who will debate it, but The Orb have been characterized by some as “The Pink Floyd of the 90s” as a result of their ponderous, ambient feel.
Considering this, along with the fact that Beken had collaborated with the Floyd’s Rick Wright, and his Transit Kings bandmate Guy Pratt was the bassist for Pink Floyd, he was the obvious choice as keyboardist for “Saucerful of Secrets” from the beginning.
History. The historical path is circuitous, starting and ending with Pink Floyd. See if you can follow along.
Now, you can choose lots of adjectives – legendary, incomparable, monumental – but there’s no disputing Pink Floyd’s place on a very short list of the greatest and most successful rock bands in history. The band is no longer, but original bassist Roger Waters continues to enjoy success touring, and guitarist David Gilmour seems to be happy to have helmed the release of a handful of Floyd albums after Waters’ 1985 departure.
Nick Mason was the band’s drummer and also a co-founder – the only member to appear on every one of the band’s albums. Rick Wright was yet another co-founder and the group’s keyboardist. He shuffled off this mortal coil in 2008, dashing the hopes of Floyd fans for a
potential future reunion.
After the band’s 1994 tour in support of the Floyd’s “Division Bell” album, Nick Mason did a disappearing act for all practical intents and purposes. But in 2018, Lee Harris – Floyd super fan and guitarist formerly with Ian Dury and The Blockheads – approached acclaimed bassist Guy Pratt (who has been Pink Floyd’s bassist for the entirety of the post-Waters era) and proposed the idea of trying to coax Mason into playing some of the band’s early psychedelic music, much of which was penned by the fabled Syd Barrett.
The result was a group of musicians who eventually be known as “Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets” in honor of the Pink Floyd album. Their lineup: Mason on drums, Pratt on bass, Harris on guitar, Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp on guitar and lead vocals… and a fellow by the name of Dom Beken on keyboards.
We promised we’d finally get there!
Profile. As a youngster Beken developed keyboard chops improvising on the family piano, and eventually he studied at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. After that he went to work as a studio engineer.
He found himself making musical contributions to the productions of clients, a development which led to him to composing for television and video games – an endeavor that has earned him acclaim and awards. “I desperately wanted to work in the music industry and I love the process of making records. I just loved listening to recorded music and trying to work out how the hell they did it.
“Eventually I got myself a job at the local recording studio – I think I started offering to pick the chewing gum off the bottom of the chairs just to be let into the control room to see.”
A fascination with and penchant for early Akai samplers and other MIDI instruments led to his reputation as a programmer – a job title still in its infancy during the early years of his career.
After a few years at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool, Beken migrated to London and commenced freelancing in legendary studios like Townhouse, Olympic, and Trident. “I got to meet a lot of people, you know, working either as an assistant or as an engineer or as a programmer.”
Despite his reputation as a keyboard player, “My first instrument is drums, and I love playing drums. What I really wanted to do as a musician was to be a drummer. Unfortunately, there’s already a drummer [Nick Mason] in this band of some note,” he says with a chuckle.
Penchant for drumming aside, Beken was an obvious choice to play keys in the band. “When the idea for the band was dreamt up, Lee and Guy obviously wanted me involved. Their initial idea was ‘let’s have Dom because there’s loads and loads of that early Pink Floyd stuff which has got lots of ambience in it and all that kind of thing so let’s have Dom on stage doing live sound design’ – that kind of thing.”
The original plan, however, was to have someone else actually playing keys while Dom created the swirling Floyd ambience. But as he recalls it, that person “didn’t turn up to the initial rehearsals, so I just said ‘look, don’t worry, I’ll fill in on the Hammond and piano parts and we’ll see how we get on,’ and I got both jobs.”
Horses for courses and other gear talk. Beken is happy to have a large stable of instruments on stage, in the tradition of Rick Wright’s sprawling setup. The major difference is that in the modern era, virtual instruments have lightened the load going on the truck.
Early on the band eschewed the idea of performing precise re-creations of the Floyd studio albums, instead preferring some improvization and creating novel sounds for each performance.
“This is not about tributing the original records or how they were performed originally. It is a tribute to the songs and the material, but we’re not here to recreate what the band sounded like in the ’60s and early ’70s.”
Organs were central to the early Floyd sound – Hammond B3, Vox Continental, and Farfisa among them. It would be prohibitively expensive and impractical to haul all three on the road, so Beken looked into alternatives and ultimately chose the Nord C2D.
“In my humble opinion, I think it sounds great live in the context of the band. For the size of the unit, at the touch of a button it becomes a Farfisa, at the touch of a button it becomes a Vox Continental, and at the touch of a button I can put an amp in the circuit and distort it and I think it sounds good… so that was that – the Nord C2D covers all my organ duties.”
Of course there have to be synths in the rig as well, and Beken’s main unit is the Moog Subsequent 37. “I wanted something really analog-y that has got as many WYSIWYG controls on the surface as humanly possible so I can be as creative as possible with it on stage – really hands on – really fast.”
He’s been pleased with the versatility and the quality of the Moog. “The Subsequent 37 was such a move on from the Sub 37 in my opinion – and such a move up from the Little Phatty – it just sounded great and worked perfectly, and it does all sorts of duties.”
An important feature of the early Floyd sound was the Binson Echorec – a device that’s sufficiently stable and useful in the studio, but taking a vintage tape delay unit on the road could be fraught with peril. Nevertheless, Beken insisted on the capacity to achieve that classic sound.
“I want this to sound bigger and I want this to sound fatter and wider, so I don’t want one or two multihead Binson Echorecs, I want three or four or maybe five! I want them to be beautifully in sync all the time and not be worried about someone having to reset delay times live on stage… and suddenly I want six!” Beken auditioned quite a few Echorec clones, and ultimately settled on Foxgear units.
He wanted additional effects units. “I pimped the FX rack out with loads of toys – some of which Rick (Wright) or Roger (Waters) invented as concepts much later on, like putting an organ or a Wurltizer through a wah pedal. I ended up with this pretty hefty large hands-on set of controllers, and I added to the Moog with a bunch of Mooger Foogers as well. I’ve got a ring modulator and I’ve got a low pass filter on there.”
Beken had his studio technician, Bob Stewart (who gets all the photo credits for this story), sort out a matrix mixer. “I need some sort of onstage matrix mixer that I can use without having to reach over to a mixer so I can send stuff everywhere, I can mute things, I can set up patches – but I want it to be all analog,” Beken told Stewart.
Stewart’s response: “impractical!”
He told Beken that the cost, size, and weight of such a thing would be unrealistic at best, and the only way to accomplish what he wanted would be Apple’s Mainstage app – which was profoundly troubling to Beken. “I loathe the thing – it’s illogical, which is a joke considering it was built on a program called Logic, and it’s just not really fit for the purpose on the road in a professional way in my humble opinion. However, I’ve found it’s the only thing out there that really does the job, and so Mainstage it was.” [Note to Beken and Stewart: y’all need to check out Gig Performer!]
In addition to the Nord organ and Moog synth, “I added a couple of controller keyboards because obviously you’ve then got the scope to use plug-ins and stuff for those sounds I can’t get elsewhere. It just gives me the option to play three or four different types of pianos. Mainstage means I can do all that, and it handles all the routing.”
Signal is physically routed via the Dante AV networking protocol, and foot pedals let Beken route different sources to different effects devices in live real time. “I send eight stereo channels to front of house and to the monitors, which are the most useful eight stereo subgroups of what the keyboards are playing.”
When pressed to divulge his favorite analog synth of all time, Beken said, “Not a vintage one, but the new Sequential Prophet 10. I think that thing sounds absolutely gorgeous, and the amount of stuff it can do is absolutely off the scale.” Nevertheless he still loves Moogs: “Maybe the trusty Moog One should be it.”
In 2023, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets toured both Europe and Australia, and fans are clamoring for another tour. Is another one in the works? Maybe! “If we can make it happen, it’ll happen. We would love to, and I think if we can make it work, we’ll make it work.”